| Gregory Peck with Mary Badham in a scene from the 1962 film, To Kill a Mockingbird. (AFP)
Los Angeles, June 12 (Reuters): Gregory Peck, one of the last great stars from Hollywood’s golden era and a man who embodied on-screen heroism and dignity, died peacefully during the night at his home, his spokesperson said today.
He was 87 and his films included some of Hollywood’s most memorable: To Kill a Mockingbird, in which he played a white lawyer defending a black man, Roman Holiday, the film that made Audrey Hepburn a star, Gentleman’s Agreement, one of the first movies to confront the taboo subject of anti-Semitism, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound.
Spokesperson Monroe Friedman said Peck’s French-born wife of 48 years, Veronique Passani Peck, was at his side when he died. “She told me he just died peacefully. She said she was holding his hand and he just closed his eyes, went to sleep and he was gone,” Friedman said.
His death came just days after the American Film Institute named his role as the idealistic Southern lawyer Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird as the greatest movie hero of all time. The role earned Peck an Oscar for best actor in 1963.
The tall, lean, square-jawed Peck began his film career in the 1940s and became Hollywood’s symbol of moral strength and sincerity both on screen and off. At one point, Democrats tried to persuade him to run for governor of California — a role that Republicans later succeeded in casting Ronald Reagan for.
The California-born Peck, who once thought of becoming a priest, attended a military academy as a boy and his soldier-like bearing served him well in such roles as Captain Ahab of Moby Dick, King David (David and Bathsheba), Gen. Douglas MacArthur (MacArthur) and even Abraham Lincoln (television’s The Blue and the Gray).
Rarely in his 52 films did he play anything but a “good guy,” a notable exception being the Nazi villain in the popular The Boys From Brazil (1978).
He earned a total of five Oscar nominations even though critics could be unkind. The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael once labelled Peck “competent but always a little boring.”
But John Huston, who directed Peck in Moby Dick, echoed the comments of many in Hollywood when he praised the “superb dignity” of the actor’s performances. It took years before critics realised how good his performance as the mad sea captain was. “Greg is one of the nicest, straightest guys I ever knew, and there’s a size to him,” Huston wrote in his autobiography.
CNN’s Larry King said, “Certain people come into the room and change the room, Gregory Peck was one of those people. He was just very special. You not going to replace Gregory Peck.”
Peck was active in the film industry, serving as founding chairman of the AFI and as head the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1967 to 1970. In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson awarded him the Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour.
With typical reserve, he once summed up his career this way: “I enjoy practicing my craft as well as I possibly can. I enjoy the work for its own sake.”
Born Eldred Gregory Peck on April 5, 1916, his first name came from a telephone directory and was quickly dropped.
Peck entered St. John’s Military Academy in Los Angeles at the age of 10. There he received discipline and large doses of Catholic training, and briefly considered becoming a priest.
Migrating to New York, he was a barker at the 1939 World’s Fair and soon started acting. His first Broadway appearance, in 1942’s Morning Star, earned him a test with movie producer David . Selznick — who turned him down.
In 1944, however, he starred as a Russian guerrilla fighter in Days of Glory, which led to a role the next year as a thoughtful priest in The Keys of the Kingdom, a role that won him his first Oscar nomination.
A bad back kept Peck out of World War II and with many stars in uniform, Peck had his choice of studios but refused to sign long-term contracts or tie himself to a single studio.
Among his early films were The Yearling (1946), The Macomber Affair (1947), Duel in the Sun (1947), Yellow Sky (1948), Twelve ’Clock High (1950), The Gunfighter (1950), Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951), The World in His Arms (1952), and David and Bathsheba (1951).
In 1956 Peck starred in two of his most successful movies, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and Moby Dick. In 1958, Peck co-produced and starred in The Big Country, a success that was followed by the bigger ones of The Guns of Navarone (a 1962 war thriller) and To Kill a Mockingbird.
Peck’s straight-backed style was perfect for the 1976 hit horror film The Omen, as well as MacArthur (1977). His last two films were in Old Gringo (1989) and a cameo in Cape Fear in 1991.
In 1954, Peck divorced first wife Greta Rice, with whom he had three children. In 1955 he married French journalist Veronique Passani, with whom he had two more children. In addition to his wife he is survived by two sons from his first marriage and a son and daughter by Veronique, as well as several grandchildren.